In 1980, when South Coast Repertory tapped then-company member Jerry Patch to adapt "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens for the stage, no one could have foreseen the result three decades later.
Certainly not Hal Landon Jr., an SCR founding member whose service to the theater company dates back to the formative year of 1965. Nor director John-David Keller, a relative newcomer whose association with Costa Mesa's South Coast Rep began 10 years later.
"A Christmas Carol" has become a theater-packing holiday tradition, with Landon's Ebenezer Scrooge headlining the production for the 31st time. And he only seems to get better and stronger with age, both as the "miser's miser" and the "tightest fist in London" to his gloriously redeemed incarnation after receiving his spectral visitors.
Directed, as it always has been, by Keller, who since has taken over the role of young Ebenezer's jovial first employer, the show has changed very little over the years, but some perceptible alterations are present. This time around, more humor seems to have been added to the warmth around the Cratchit family table, and references to young Peter's appetite draw laughter, even with a wordless hand gesture.
But the production, as always, belongs to Landon, whose earlier moments as a holiday-hating scourge often border on frightening. All the better to bring tears to the eyes later when he becomes a gregarious — and generous — patron of the season. When it comes time to carve his actual tombstone, the one from SCR reading "Ebenezer Scrooge" should be borrowed.
For the past eight years, the role of Scrooge's clerk, Bob Cratchit, created and played for many seasons by John Ellington, has been the province of Daniel Blinkoff, who gets better every year. He and Jennifer Parsons (in her seventh production) make a splendidly loving couple torn but ultimately sutured by a possible future tragedy.
Richard Doyle, another SCR founding member, excels as the Sprit of Christmas Past who shows young Scrooge's rescue from privation by a warm-hearted older sister. Timothy Landfield, likewise a "Carol" veteran, ebulliently enacts the Sprit of Christmas Present, whose jolly demeanor turns to abject sorrow at the sight of "want" and "ignorance" in the world.
The scariest spirit, long-dead partner Jacob Marley's chain-laden ghost, comes crashing through the door in the person of Gregg Daniel, perhaps not quite so imposing as Don Took, who created the role and played it for many seasons, though a formidable, strong-voiced figure nonetheless. Daniel also doubles as the wordless Sprit of Christmas Yet to Come, painting an eerie scenario.
Keller trots warmly through his sequence as Mr. Fezziwig, who brought young Ebenezer into the (unspecified) business, with Karen Hensel as his equally jolly wife. Hensel also doubles, with Doyle, as the easily offended solicitors with whom Scrooge has little patience early in the play.
William Francis McGuire returns as Scrooge's persistently cheerful nephew, joyfully countering his uncle's wrath. Founding SCR member Art Koustik again portrays the gregarious buyer of purloined properties. Christian Barillas and Puja Mohindra come off well as earnest but ill-fated young lovers Ebenezer and Belle.
If the production teaches us anything aside from what Dickens ordained, it's that SCR is truly colorblind in casting — and that a young black child may grow up to be a successful white businessman (and vice versa). Purists may wince, but the concept works nicely.
As always, the technical aspects are excellent, including Thomas Buderwitz's swiftly alternating settings, Dwight Richard Odle's period costuming and the lighting design of Donna and Tom Ruzika — who have created lighting effects for all 31 productions (Odle is right behind with 30).
"A Christmas Carol" beautifully rings in the season as playgoers who were exposed to the show as children now introduce it to their own kids. It's a heartwarming — and conscience-stirring — holiday treat.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "A Christmas Carol"
Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, noon and 4 p.m. Sundays until Dec. 26
Call: (714) 708-5555